KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- For Karla O'Malley, free speech is one thing but trash-talking the dead is beyond the pale -- or should be.
The Overland Park, Kan., woman is trying to stir up support for a federal law to bar people from posting offensive comments or pictures on website memorial pages.
She has gathered more than 200 supporters for her online petition and has reached out to U.S. Rep. Kevin Yoder, R-Kan., whose office is reviewing the matter.
"The last time I studied how a bill becomes a law was in seventh grade," said O'Malley, who is a human resources officer for a nonprofit social services agency.
She is aware of First Amendment concerns, which are formidable. But a law professor says there might be a distinction between a website posting and a funeral protest.
O'Malley is motivated by the shock she felt at vicious comments posted on a Facebook page created for a young man who died after a Christmas Eve auto accident in Overland Park.
Seventeen-year-old Travis Storm McAfee of Fort Smith, Ark., was visiting here when the accident occurred. His friends back home created a memorial page for him.
O'Malley, who happened upon the accident and comforted McAfee until the paramedics arrived, posted her condolences on the page.
But someone else posted that he or she had laughed and wished McAfee had suffered even more.
Another person posted a photo of the accident scene with the comment, "Oops, I died."
There was more of what seemed to be deliberate attempts to be hurtful. It was not an isolated case. Similar postings were made to a memorial page for a St. Joseph, Mo., teen who died last fall.
"I think he just likes to create pain," O'Malley said of the kind of person who posts things like that.
With no legal training or assistance, O'Malley drafted what she is calling Travis' Law, which would make it a federal crime to post statements or photos on memorial websites "with the intent to hurt or create a hostile environment." The draft says "customary standards" would apply as to what is hurtful or hostile.
The law also would require protests at funerals to be far enough away that mourners are not aware of them.
An immediate red flag, which even members of O'Malley's family raised, is about constitutionality.
"It sounds as though the law would be aimed at suppressing particular viewpoints, and anytime a law attempts to do that, it faces a lot of First Amendment hurdles," said Doug Linder, a professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law. "I think it would be very difficult to draft a law that would stand constitutional challenge there."
But there may be room to argue that such speech constitutes a tort -- a wrongful act against an individual.
Nancy Levit, also a UMKC law professor, said the issues O'Malley is raising are at the heart of a case now before the U.S. Supreme Court. In Snyder v. Phelps, the father of a Marine killed in Iraq is arguing that hateful protests at his son's funeral were an intentional infliction of emotional distress.
In that case, members of Fred Phelps' Westboro Baptist Church waved signs with messages such as "God hates the USA" and "Thank God for dead soldiers."
"They (members of Phelps' church) actually have a better claim to First Amendment protection than it sounds like this situation (comments on a memorial website) would warrant because they are claiming, at least, that their expressions are statements on matters of public concern," Levit said. "The major distinction is that ... posting in memorial pages does not even have that public concern component."
The Supreme Court is expected to issue a ruling in the Snyder v. Phelps case this spring.
O'Malley hopes the First Amendment issue can be overcome because the scope of her proposed law, she says, is narrow and specific.
"I am not a legal expert by any means," she acknowledged. "I just have a strong burning inside to make this stop. Protesters can voice their opinions elsewhere, but there is a time and place for mourners to be left alone."
O'Malley's draft law is at www.ipetitions.com/petition/travislaw.
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